The Two-Party System and the Cult of the Executive

One of the more sickening displays of gross hypocrisy that we have been subjected to since the elections of 2008 is the sudden discovery of and concern with a document called the Constitution of the United States by professional Republican politicians and other assorted partisan hacks. Given the distress among some on the right over the "Maoist" tendencies of Obama administration officials, perhaps some of them will now begin to think twice about their years-long advocacy of extraordinary rendition, secret prisons and presidential declarations that such and such a person is an "enemy combatant," lest they be disappeared themselves. Nonetheless, anyone who has drawn the obvious conclusion that the Constitution of the United States is being steadily eroded in the interests of the global warfare and corporate welfare state must also eventually come to recognize that the representatives of the Republican and Democratic Parties are the enablers, facilitators and agents of the erosion and degradation of the foundational document. This truth is slowly beginning to dawn on Democrats and Republicans themselves. At The Huffington Post, David Swanson, a former aide to Dennis Kucinich, draws some connections between the two-party state and the imperial presidency:
we've replaced the three branches of government with the two parties, so that at any given time roughly half the members of Congress take as their leader a president who is theoretically supposed to execute the will of Congress. And the other half usually obey their party's "leaders" in Congress, whose primary interest is in electing one of their own as the next president. Both parties continue to value presidential power itself either for its uses in the present, or for when their candidate is elected. Everyone wants to inherit the imperial presidency, not constrain it.

Under these circumstances, bills to create commissions investigating presidential abuses, to place a judicial check on claims of "state secrets," limit the use of presidential signing statements, or to allow more than eight members of Congress to be given "security" briefings by the executive branch prove not to be priorities for either party. These days, the old-fashioned idea of checking executive abuses of existing laws through the issuance of subpoenas or by impeachment is, in Washington, widely considered a scandalous proposition . . .

Any quick survey of the powers the presidency now claims would have to include the power to make laws, the power to make wars, the power to spend money, the power to make treaties, the power to grant immunity for crimes, the power to operate in secrecy, the power to spy without warrants, the power to detain without charge, and the power to torture.
Compare this analysis with the following "inspirational" new age platitudes on the two-party system from Simon Sinek, also at the Huffington Post:
Neither party does a good job of contextualizing why they have the opinions they do in the first place. Both care about America, both believe in upholding the values laid down by our forefathers. Both are deeply patriotic. And both know why America exists – it’s all about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The difference lies in how they think we should deliver on that American Dream. Though both parties know why America exists, neither party can tell you why they exist.

Republicans are the party of “I” . . . Democrats are the party of “we” . . . The way the two party system is supposed to work is that both parties present their vision for America and then the people will choose which they believe best suits them based on the challenges they face at the times.
Too bad then that Republicans and Democrats share the same vision for America: the transformation of a constitutional republic into an authoritarian cult of the executive.


Samuel Wilson said...

While there are probably structural and strategic reasons for the expansion of executive power outside the realm of party politics, I suspect that the parties cultivate a "cult" of Presidential personality as a way of overriding public frustration with the two-party system. If we ask why people might flood back to the Republican party in 2010 or 2012 after the Bush debacle, Republicans can argue that Bush isn't in charge, therefore the party is different. The same reasoning promoted Bush himself by stressing to conservatives that he was not the same as his father.

At the same time, we should acknowledge the danger of an authoritarian fascination with the Presidency on the part of some third-party movements. This was most noticeable in the Perot campaigns, but the Nader movement has been a personality cult to an extent as well, and specifically to the extent that people believed that one extraordinary leader can transform the polity through pure will or moral force. It shouldn't surprise us, either, to see growing mass frustration with partisanship ferment into longing for a leader rather than a movement. It's a tendency we have to guard against, but since independent campaigns often seem to depend on strong personalities, it's a temptation as well.

d.eris said...

As I was reading your comment, I was thinking something along the lines of what you mention toward the end. I'm not sure that third party and independent movements really do tend toward being personality cults, at least not as much as the Democratic and Republican Parties do. In fact, it may well be the case that any third party personality cult that may exist is really just a symptom of two-party ideology. One of the duopolist ideologue's favored arguments against third party activism is precisely that the alternative party has no "unifying figure" for people to "rally around," which, they continue, makes third parties not viable. To be completely blunt: their position is that third parties are "not viable" because they are not authoritarian personality cults, like the Democratic and Republican Parties. I think this could be turned around, and made into a strength. When they say, "There is no unifying figure," the proper response is "That's exactly the point."

Ross said...

I think that a lot of people who don't think too much about politics or third parties tend to associate third parties with the presidency because of the cult of personality that has developed around it. Most of the attention that third parties get is usually associated with their runs for the presidency. It's a double-edged sword - gain attention for the party, but lose legitimacy because people view your party as unelectable and not serious in the context of the presidency.

I mean, I think even most highly partisan Democrats who hate third parties because of Nader would have little problem voting for them on the local level. Opinions and parties change greatly between the local and presidential level, and that's often lost in the discussion about third parties.

d.eris said...

On the other hand, people who do think a lot about politics but are supporters of one or the other duopoly parties argue against third parties because they "cannot" win the next presidency. How many articles have you seen arguing that third parties are doomed to failure, and then go on only to list returns for third party candidates in presidential elections?

I think third party and independent activists would be greatly served by de-emphasizing presidential runs, and redouble efforts in local and state government and in the congress, especially in states with lopsided majorities, and should hit the major party where it is strongest. This would arguably be a better use of time and funds, and could even be of use in a larger strategic movement against the imperial presidency.

Ross said...

I absolutely agree. If I can find someone to run (I'm only 16 so I can't) I'll be managing a Green or Progressive (if they get their shit together nationally soon enough) campaign for township supervisor in my town for the 2010 election. That's about as local as it gets, and these are the campaigns that third parties have the best chance at winning - because for these campaigns it takes hard work, knocking on doors, and connecting with voters to win rather than TV ads or big money or media perception.

Samuel Wilson said...

To clarify my original comment, I accept a distinction between third parties in general and third-party Presidential campaigns, the latter being more likely to look like personality cults than the former. As for whether independents should consider the Presidency their primary prize, that depends on their patience in seeking and making change. There will be some who will think that the quickest difference can be made at the top, but Damon is right to question whether that approach would make as much difference as a long-term campaign aimed at local results.

Ross said...

A third party has never won the presidency. Ever. Some people argue that Lincoln was a third party candidate, but that's a complicated situation. I think it's a mistake how much focus is put on not just the presidency, but federal races in general. Even statewide races are out of almost all third parties' and independents' league at this point.

I guess you've got to ask the question, why are we running as a third party? Is it to win and govern without any ties to the two major parties and to subsequently undermine the destructive two party system, or is it to disrupt a two party race with some new ideas and possibly change the outcome of the election to another major party member? Do you just want attention, or do you want to win? That's the question that third party activists need to ask themselves if they haven't already.

Of course, it's not always that black and white. I mean, I'd rather support Matt Reichel running for Congress (who got 7% last time) than some no-name write-in Green or whatever party candidate, because I know that Reichel - even if his chances of winning aren't very high at all - has a better chance of building the Green party's credibility, voter base, and position in the media.

d.eris said...

"That's the question that third party activists need to ask themselves if they haven't already."

We also have to continue pressing and questioning supporters of the duopoly parties, hard, regarding their continued support for the failed two-party state. Are they only interested in winning, or rather, defeating the candidate they like less, or would they rather have adequate representation? etc.